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"Early Modern Festival Books" By Professor Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly

The two-volume collection of festival texts being edited by Europa Triumphans will consist largely of excerpts from and translations of festival books, which are the official, individual publications issued by the body organising a particular festival (e.g., the Crown). Festival books vary considerably in both content and form. They can be brief, factual accounts of what went on in the festival in either prose or verse. They can be rather more lavish, illustrated factual accounts. They can consist mostly of plates. They can present a factual narrative and then use that as the launching pad for a disquisition on subjects of a historical, philosophical or moral nature. They can include celebratory verse. They can consist solely of the libretto of an opera or ballet. As straight historical sources, festival books must always be used with caution. Their documentary value is limited in the following ways:

Festival books were often printed beforehand in order to be distributed on the day, so they may narrate what the organisers hoped would happen, rather than what did happen.

  1. The writer, even if present, may not have seen all that went on or may not have remembered to write down everything that he saw.

  2. The writer, to a large extent, recorded what the court officer who briefed him in advance of the event told him to put down.

  3. The writer, by definition a learned man, was nonetheless out of his depth when it came to understanding - much less describing - some aspects of the celebrations. Although he would have understood the Latin inscriptions and any allegorical references, he may well have been at a loss for words to describe the movements performed in the ballet or the equestrian and martial aspects of the tournament. Thus, it is important to remember that the learned aspects traditionally focused upon in festival books - e.g., the Latin inscriptions, the allegory - reflect the education and interests of the writer. These may not have been the aspects of the festival that most interested the spectators or the prince.

  4. Festival books, it should be remembered, belong to a written genre with its own conventions. The bride is always beautiful and goes gladly to meet her groom. Certain things are simply not said. The conventions of the genre do not permit the writer to reveal that the weather was inclement, that the food was inedible or that the wine ran out. Rather, the festival must be shown to be princely - that is, magnificent in a way which exceeds the resources of the ordinary subject. Certain linguistic tropes of admiration and glorification - adjectives such as "princely", "magnificent", and "brilliant" or expressions such as "never before equalled or surpassed" - therefore recur with great regularity in festival books.

If festival books cannot simply be regarded naively as straight, historical records of the events they purport to describe, what was their function? On the simplest level, they were aids to understanding the festival. They were distributed on the day and could be read while waiting for events to begin. They could function rather like the opera programme which you read hastily while waiting for the show to begin in order to know enough to understand what you are about to see. They prolonged the life of the festival, in the manner of the modern wedding video. They were (and, indeed, are) a substitute for those unable to be present on the day itself. Those works which provide an engraving for every single group in a procession, for instance, recreate the festival for those turning the pages. They are souvenirs for those who were present. They could be left lying around on the coffee table, as it were, to show what exalted company one kept. They were used as models in future by the court which staged the festival or by foreign courts - and were meant to be used in this way. Above all, they were official propaganda. They present the festival already pre-packaged, already interpreted. The festival itself will vanish, but this interpretation will last as long as books are read. Festival books came into being not long after the invention of printing in the late 15th century.

Of course, manuscript festival accounts survived alongside the printed accounts for a long time. We still find manuscript accounts in the early 18th century, written on vellum and bound. Printed festival books - off the peg, mass-produced items, you might think - are often customised or turned into haute couture objects for particular patrons or recipients. Thus, the line between mass-produced publication and one-off art object is a fine one with regard to this genre. A festival book is often also a unique object because of the way it is put together - varying numbers of illustrations, for instance, special dedicatory poems inserted for particular recipients, etc. But nonetheless, festival books are printed books. They are, however, not at all common in the late 15th century. They essentially arrive as a genre in the teens of the 16th century. The history of the book as an object in a particular territory is at least as important in determining the nature of the festival book as the political aspirations it presents. Some countries have a developed festival culture without having a tradition of the festival book - Britain is an example, with festival books only becoming numerous after the Restoration in 1660. Because of the excellence of the illustrations and the calibre of the artists who either worked directly in the production of the festival book or who provided designs for the festival which were afterwards reproduced in the book, the Netherlands has always been a model for festivals and publications in other countries and so has an importance way beyond its size. Territories such as the Kingdom of Spain and Portugal, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, to give it its full name, the Kingdoms of Sweden and Denmark, and Muscovy, later the Russian Empire, the many territories of the Holy Roman Empire, all have their own tradition of the festival book.

In order to make a meaningful selection from such a vast and diverse corpus of material, the Europa Triumphans project decided to group the selections in such a way as to open up new paths rather than go over well-trodden ground. The festival book is not a monolithic genre and it must be presented in all its variety and diversity. Each book relates in a specific way to the social, political and artistic context from which it emerges and takes on particular characteristics according to the date at which it was produced, the patron who commissioned it and the artistic forces at its disposal. It is a part of the festival rather than a record of it. If a festival in essence is early modern self-presentation, then the festival book is the official presentation of that presentation. As such, it is a cultural and historical document of the first importance, a vital key to understanding early modern culture and thus deserves to be better known. This is what the publications of Europa Triumphans aim to do.